At a time when reconciliation and its importance is being widely discussed, the people of the North and the South came to the streets last week, not for themselves, but for the estate workers in the hill country whose wage issues are unresolved for years.
For years, the Tamils of the North have been focusing on their own issues and have been demanding durable solutions for the ethnic question, and the issues that stemmed out of the conflict that ensued.
Even after the war ended, many of the issues of the people of the Northern and Eastern provinces remained unaddressed. Issues such as enforced disappearances, land grabbing, delay in releasing those arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), are some of the issues that continue to be raised in local and international platforms.
The Hill country woes
Over the years, the issues of the estate sector workers were overshadowed by the battle in the North and East. Their wages, standard of living, access to basic facilities such as health and education have been spoken about for several years but have not gained much prominence due to the problems faced by fellow Tamils in the North and East.
Even after the war ended, both communities rarely spoke on behalf of each other. The issues of the estate sector were not raised by the Northern politicians and vice versa. Even though both spoke the same language, both addressed their issues on their own.
The estate sector workers are now engaged in protests over their wages which have not been revised for years. The Collective Agreement which signed every two years by the employers and the estate workers is yet to be renewed.
The agreement expired on March 31, 2015 and discussions to renew the agreement have ended in failure.
Estate sector dilemma
On the other hand, plantation owners too are in a dilemma due to the current drought situation and the continuous fall of tea prices in the market.
It is expected that the industry would face a Rs. 40 billion loss by the end of the year due to these factors.
In this context, the fact that Jaffna came to the streets in support of the estate sector workers is most welcome.
In fact, the Northern Province Chief Minister, C.V. Wigneswaran, who received negative feedback for the comments made at the recently held Ezhuga Thamizh convention, had emphasized that the wage issue of the workers should be dealt in a humane manner.
This is a gesture that needs to be welcomed in a positive manner.
Lack of unity
One of the reasons why the problems of the minorities of Sri Lanka is yet to be solved despite so much of bloodshed, is the lack of unity within and among minorities. In its quest towards struggling for rights, one community ignores the others. This therefore creates a situation where each community comes out with its own set of demands.
Once again, it comes down to the question whether the reconciliation process includes all communities. The process should not focus on the two communities that were involved in the conflict. Even the estate sector employees should be included in the process though they were not direct victims of the war.
The inclusion of the estate communities within the reconciliation process would also give them a platform to discuss their issues with other stakeholders of the process.
Published in the Nation on October 16, 2016